Good News Makes Bad Stories
by Ken Adams (e-mail: KAdams@liberator.net) [July 3rd, 2003]
“What if you’re wrong?”
A reader of my column recently posed this question to me. He was responding to my article, which pointed out some of the flaws in the Jesus myth. During my correspondence with him, it became apparent that he was just another fundamentalist, trolling for brimstone fodder for the Almighty. However, he did raise an interesting point – one that sounds good to a lot of people.
What he was describing is a very common piece of logic called “Pascal’s Wager”. It dates back to the seventeenth century, when it was put forward by the mathematician Blaise Pascal. Being a smart guy, he really should have known better, but let’s take a look at the logic and see where it goes wrong.
“A person’s belief system is a product of their experience, knowledge, and logic.”
Basically, the logic goes like this: There are only two ways that a person can act – either with God, or against him. As well, God either exists or he doesn’t. So, here is a summary of all possible outcomes:
If you believe in God, and he exists, then you gain all.
If you believe in God, and he doesn’t exist, then nothing happens.
If you do not believe in God, and he exists, then you lose all.
If you do not believe in God, and he doesn’t exist, then nothing happens.
So, believing in God yields either positive or neutral results, while spurning God yields either negative or neutral results. Therefore, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by supporting the God hypothesis.
Sounds ironclad, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, there are some flaws in the logic.
False dichotomy – Belief in God is not a simple yes/no question. Most religions believe that only they provide the correct path to salvation, and all others will face eternal damnation. Muslims believe that all Christians are infidels. Hindus believe that Buddhists are wrong. And most branches of Christianity believe that the other sects are wrong. If I believe in God, I could choose any one of thousands of different religions and sects. If I choose the wrong one, I could support God, but still lose all. So, it’s not just a matter of believing in God or not believing in him. I must pick one of a thousand Gods, most of which are intolerant of all other Gods – any wrong choice, and I’m toast.
Reduction to absurdity – Go back and reread my four “if” statements, substituting “Allah” for God. It works equally well. Now try it for Vishnu, Zeus, Baal, and Spiderman. The logic works just as well. I have everything to gain by worshipping Spiderman, and nothing to lose.
Incorrect assumptions – The logic assumes that if I worship a non-existent God, then nothing happens. This is not true. I must expend time, energy, and money to support my God. If he isn’t real, then I have just wasted my resources. And what does any one have that is more valuable than time? So, believing in a non-existent God is not neutral, it is negative. You must pay for it, and you lose.
Belief is not an investment – No one chooses their belief system by selling to the highest bidder. A person’s belief system is a product of their experience, knowledge, and logic. You do not pick beliefs. They develop spontaneously. Choosing a belief based on expediency is not belief at all, it is opportunism.
The odds are not equal – Implicit in Pascal’s logic is the assumption that the two hypotheses are roughly equal, so the individual might as well go with the one that yields the best results. This is not true. The likelihood of the vengeful God of ancient Middle Eastern sheepherders being the creator of the universe is infinitesimal.
I would like to conclude with an illustration.
My name is Ken. I am the Almighty of the universe. At the end of days I will reward my followers with eternal life and seventy-one virgins (I had a brief bidding war with Allah). Those who do not believe in me will suffer through an eternity of Survivor reruns. Can you really afford to not worship me?
And, as for me, I will worship Spiderman.
Resources and Avenues for Further Study
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Pascal's Wager School of Mathematics, Trinity University: Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662) Belenios Ategnatos: Religious Fanaticism And How to Deal with It
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